YALC 2015! Saturday’s Exploits.

You’re probably thinking ‘Why the YALC post now? It’s been OVER A WEEK’. Well, life has been pretty manic since YALC and I’ve spent so long flailing like Kermit at all my nearest and dearest (and other persons besides!) that I haven’t actually managed to get my YALC feelings down into one cohesive blog post. I want to do some longer blog posts about one or two of my favourite panels (watch this space!) but for now, here’s my take on my first ever YALC.

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Two Boys Kissing

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“…he hopes that maybe it’ll make people a little less scared of two boys kissing than they were before, and a little more welcoming to the idea that all people are, in fact, born equal, no matter who they kiss or screw, no matter what dreams they have or love they give.”

 

This is my second foray into a David Leviathan book, having read Every Day a few months ago. I’ve heard lots of good things about this author and while Every Day didn’t blow me away, I was more than happy to give another of his novels a go.

Two Boys Kissing  is a novel about four sets of characters: Craig and Harry, going for the world record for longest kiss; Avery and Ryan, who have just met; Peter and Neil, long-term boyfriends; and Connor, who is alone and unhappy with what life has thrown his way. This is a lot of characters to fit into one story, and you could definitely end up reading one thread and skipping others. For me, the most compelling were Craig and Harry, who form the epicentre of the story and whose story runs through the storylines of all of the others. The others orbit around this main thread, some more successfully than others. In some ways they work in two pairs: Craig and Harry, with Peter and Neil, form one pair; Avery and Ryan, and Connor’s storyline, form another pair. But Craig and Harry’ story is so dominant, we hear very little from Peter and Neil – they are just there, living. That may well be the point, but it also feels slightly like they are an afterthought which is a shame, because Neil especially has stuff of his own going on which I think was worth dwelling on for longer. Avery and Ryan’s storyline was very bright and I enjoyed that part greatly, combining the excitement of meeting someone for the first time with the more negative elements of being seriously threatened and harassed because they are gay. Connor, on the other hand, is a spiral of negativity, in a horrible position where he has to keep his sexuality secret apart from during the night online when nobody else can see.

The thing I struggled with in this book was the narrative. Connor’s story, for example, could have been a short story all on its own. The whole book reads like multiple in-world short stories combined into a novel. On top of this, Leviathan uses a narrative “we”, which seems to speak both for the reader and for his generation of gay young men. I found this odd to read, especially initially, as I felt it meant we never got our teeth into the stories and the characters properly. I wanted the distance that the “we” perspective gave to be reduced, because otherwise the narrative feels to me like camera directions from a movie, panning across everything but never really zooming in for long enough for us to focus on specific characters in detail. I discussed this with others who’ve read the book, and it seems to be a polarising element – some love it, and some don’t. I feel closer to the latter – I prefer to be able to really get into specific stories, and I’ve never been keen on short stories as a form.

That said, there is a lot of characterisation done well in this: Connor’s character develops rapidly, although negatively, and we see him much more clearly as a result of events that he’s put through. We get a clear view of Craig and Harry, although as they are the main element of this story, it’s hardly surprising. The situation of being trapped by having to break the world record, surrounded by what happens to them from their friends, family, the press, the public, and the others in this story, gives us a real view into them as people which I don’t think we get as strongly from any of the other characters, apart from Connor right near the end. Avery and Ryan’s characters stand quite clearly, helped I think by the fact that they are new to each other as well.

I wish I could write more about this book, but I feel like as we never quite get into the characters, and that these do at heart feel like combined short stories, that there is very little more to discuss. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a narrative style that I can get along with. If there’s one that goes into more detail with character etc I’ll more than happily try it though!

 

Things I liked about this book: The main story strand of Craig and Harry trying to break the world record. We are given a real sense of their community and what their lives are like, compared to the other characters.

Things I was less keen on were: The narrative style. It never got its teeth into particular stories, instead settling for scanning across many threads.

 

Two Boys Kissing: 6/10

If you liked this, you might like:
Every Day by David Leviathan
Paper Towns by John Green
More Than This by Patrick Ness

 

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More Than This

MoreThanThis-Front

“A book… it’s a world all on its own too. A world made of words, where you live for a while.”

It seems appropriate to open with this quote, from Patrick Ness’ latest YA offering, More Than This. I have spent the last day or two in its world, and it has been a fascinating ride.

The book opens with the line: “Here is the boy, drowning.” And in the first three pages the boy, Seth, dies. So where to go from here? Ness spends most of the book answering this question. More Than This is an exercise in curiosity, teasing you further and further inside its pages until you’re totally sucked in and can’t fathom how you got this deep into it. After all, Seth is in a world all by himself. You would think that with only one character, things would get stale rather quickly.

But Ness really plays on this idea of isolation. Even the tiniest movement in this empty place has you jumping with fright. Aside from the lack of people, where are the animals? The sounds? The eeriness of this abandoned setting sinks in to you, and just as you’ve become accustomed to Seth’s immediate surroundings you are thrown completely off by the introduction of something new.

I wish I could be more specific, but as Patrick Ness says in his video here, the book relies greatly on its mystery, and I don’t want to spoil it for any of you who might not have read it. The unfurling of the mystery is what I love the most about this book. Ness has done it previously, in his acclaimed Chaos Walking trilogy, where he opens in the isolation of Prentisstown and slowly spreads outwards and uncovers greater and bigger things. But here it is even more pronounced, as you do not have the distractions of an action-packed plot to take away from it. This is not to lessen the effect – by taking a more minimalist approach, as this story demands, its impact is heightened and made more impressive. And as a reader you get these glorious nuggets of realisation, where enough things are unfurled to allow you to unlock another part of the puzzle.

It might not seem like the most obvious book to sit in the YA category, but yet again Ness has gauged his audience perfectly. Within the scope of this novel he covers a multitude of themes from relationships to bullying to parental trouble and of course, friendship. It is not a book ‘about’ any of these things, but he covers it all within exploration and narration of this world Seth has found himself in. That is one of the reasons I think Ness is such a great YA writer: he threads all of these themes in to make one seamless whole.

His Chaos Walking trilogy is something I find very hard to criticise, both plot-wise and linguistically. More Than This is not far off. However, in the carefully paced opening section of the novel his use of new single-line paragraph for effect can be a little much, overemphasising more than he needs to. This technique faded for me in the second half of the book though, although this may have been because of the steady increase in pace throughout the novel. I initially found the pace unsettling, but then again I should have expected it after being treated to the first few chapters at the Hay Festival. And I don’t see how this novel could have been approached any faster without ruining its wonderful tension.

I thoroughly enjoyed More Than This, and am grateful that Patrick Ness has chosen to once again write for the YA market. Inside the back cover it informs us that he has won every major prize in children’s fiction, including the Carnegie – twice! If he carries on producing works like this, I will be very much surprised if he doesn’t win them all over again.

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More Than This: 9/10

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My review of A Monster Calls HERE

Listen to Patrick Ness talking about Chaos Walking HERE

Talking Terminal

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I can’t review these books without discussing their endings!

As a reader, I tend to avoid obviously difficult subjects, both in YA and elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t have picked up Stolen if I hadn’t been recommended it by a friend. The blurbs never scream “happy ever after” to me and while I’m fine without a neatly tied everyone-survives ending, topics like illness (in this case, cancer) tell me that this book is unlikely to end with the illness gone away and all characters surviving. As Hazel says about her favourite novel: “It’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck.”

But saying that, I am now going to talk about The Fault In Our Stars (TFioS) by John Green and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (based on an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) which both address this challenging subject. TFioS is told from the point of view of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl who is suffering from incurable lung cancer. A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is the story of Conor and how he copes with his mother’s terminal cancer.

Hazel opens TFioS by attending Support Group, as her mother has decided she is depressed. Hazel disagrees, but goes anyway. It is here that she meets our other protagonist, Augustus Waters. He is a seventeen-year-old boy in remission after losing one of his legs. He is easy-going, confident, and enjoys finding symbolism and metaphor in pretty much everything. The two swap book recommendations: Hazel’s favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, for Augustus’ book based on a videogame with “a sentence to corpse ratio of nearly 1:1”. Thankfully, Augustus is not as formulaic as his book recommendation would suggest.

The thing I love the most about TFioS (and at the time of writing I’ve read it four times and listened to the audiobook twice) is Hazel’s narrative. For so much of the book you think of cancer as a side-effect of the plot; it doesn’t get in your way. And it means you get more room to enjoy Hazel’s character, her sense of humour, her interests, her view on the world and the people she meets in it. She is very well-read, yet enjoys sitting in for day-long marathons of ANTM. Most importantly, she is not daunted by Augustus. Hazel is very much her own person.

It is this narrative that makes the highs and lows of the novel feel even more heightened. John Green does a wonderful job of creating these carefully orchestrated crescendos, then suddenly tugs you down into something softer, quieter, and inevitably more painful. It is his own reminder that while you can believe in the illusion of health that Hazel (and predominantly Augustus) creates, you are only fooling yourself. It is, after all, an illusion.

The ending is what makes Hazel even more brilliant to me: she understands that the wheels keep turning and she has to keep going, even while dealing with her grief. We know she will not ever live a long and ‘normal’ life, but she closes this chapter of her life with Augustus knowing she will carry on, for however long that will be. It is that optimism, shining through the bleakness, that makes this such a wonderful conclusion to the story. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, but Green does not leave you in total darkness.

A Monster Calls feels considerably darker as a story, and in many ways it is. This is not only because of Jim Kay’s brilliant illustrations, but because the focus is on Conor and the monster. The monster arrives every night just after midnight, waking Conor up from the nightmare he has had since his mum started a fresh bout of treatments. Finding out what the nightmare is forms the climax of the story, but in between visits from the monster we see how Conor manages day-to-day. His parents have separated and his father now lives in America; he lives with his mother and is occasionally visited by his grandma, who he makes no secret of loathing.

Conor drifts through school, and Ness makes the readers feel how he is fading. He is becoming his mother’s illness. Picked on by bullies, unable and unwilling to stand up for himself, you watch him continually self-destruct and become more and more isolated. As this happens during the day, the monster visits him during the night. He is told three stories by the monster, who insists that after these tales are told, Conor will tell him his story: the truth about what happens in his nightmare.

The story is beautifully told, and feels horribly real. It feels so real that it is impossible to distance yourself from it, and the ending will likely have you in tears. It is crafted in such a way that when Conor finally reveals happens in his nightmare, we can understand completely. He has been consistently beating himself up, letting others beat him up, because he can’t shake the guilt of what he feels. It is also made clear he doesn’t ever vent and has nobody really to talk to, which only increases his guilt. This isolation is completely understandable from our external perspective, but we see how it eats him up. When he finally lets go, it is a great weight that has lifted from both Conor and the readers’ shoulders.

While I may not frequent books that discuss subjects like terminal cancer, both TFioS and A Monster Calls are brilliantly worked (and also two of my favourite books). Neither are truly about cancer. TFioS is about first love, and A Monster Calls about the importance of letting your feelings go. Both are brilliantly crafted, and the sort of books that you are determined everyone should read. And therefore I hope you now go away and (re)read them. They are both truly excellent books.

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For all things TFioS (FAQ) : http://onlyifyoufinishedtfios.tumblr.com/

VIDEO: Patrick Ness talking about A Monster Calls

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TFIOS: 9/10

A Monster Calls: 10/10